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Is Your Windows 8 Tablet Fast Enough For PC Gaming?

Is Your Windows 8 Tablet Fast Enough For PC Gaming?
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Why should Nintendo's 3DS XL, Sony's PlayStation Vita, and Nvidia's Shield have all the fun? We take Dell's Windows 8.1-based Venue 8 Pro, powered by an Atom processor, and try turning it into a portable PC gaming console with a handful of upgrades.

I've never been much of a game console guy. It's not that I look down on them with some misguided sense of technical superiority. But as an old-school PC gamer, I've always preferred first-person shooters and RPGs to platformers. I feel I have more control with a mouse and keyboard than a gamepad. There's a sophistication you can get on the PC that'd be difficult to replicate on a console.

When it comes to handheld gaming, though, the PC isn't as much of a factor. Laptops are too large to carry and play on for short jaunts across town, and unless you're flying first class, they're not all that practical in the air, either.

Nintendo catered to the space with its Game Boy, which evolved into today's 3DS XL. Sony countered with its PlayStation Portable. That was replaced by the Vita. Of course, smartphones and tablets are quickly encroaching on the mobile gaming space thanks to advancements in graphics hardware and standardized APIs able to maintain compatibility. Nvidia's Android-based Shield bears mention as well, since it facilitates gaming in its native environment and on Windows, if you're running the right GeForce card and in range of a fast-enough Wi-Fi network.

While all of these portable consoles have their strengths, none of them gi

ve you a truly mobile version of the desktop experience. You can't play something like Dota 2 on a Nintendo DS. Nvidia comes the closest with surprisingly faithful ports of Half-Life 2 and Portal, but the Android library is otherwise limited. The company continues to implement innovative technologies with GameStream and Grid cloud gaming. However, both features depend on blazing-fast network connections for smooth performance. The day might come when tethering and in-flight Wi-Fi are quick enough, but we're not there now. So what's a PC gaming to do?

Windows 8-based tablets aren't marketed as gaming platforms, and for good reason. The hardware inside most of them tends to be modest, particularly with regard to graphics. Moreover, their storage space is usually quite limited. In many cases, basic peripherals don't work with them due to a lack of simple USB connectivity. Lastly, PC games still aren't written with touch-based input in mind. Right out of the gate, gaming on a Windows-based tablet is a mess.

Of course, enthusiasts lead the charge when it comes to exacting change. We put our minds to making the mobile PC game console idea happen. And let's be clear: I'm not talking about playing Angry Birds or Halo: Spartan Assault here. Some of those Windows-based touch-optimized titles are decent. Cold Alley, GTA: San Andreas, Armed!, Asphalt 8: Airborne, and Skulls of the Shogun are good for hours of diversion, and available on the Windows Store. But that's not what I'm going for. I want hardcore desktop gaming on my mobile console.

The Platform

We have to start somewhere, and Dell's Venue 8 Pro is ideal in some ways.

A PlayStation Vita or Nvidia Shield is in the $200 neighborhood; Nintendo's 3DS XL is slightly below that. Dell's Venue 8 Pro starts at $300 on the company's site, but you can pick it up for $200 if you have a Micro Center in your area. Granted, those prices cover the 32 GB model. If you plan to install more software, consider the 64 GB version for $320 from dell.com or $250 at Micro Center.

We haven't even made it off the first page yet and we've already paid a premium compared to competing portables. But keep in mind that a Windows-based tablet is useful for much more than gaming. The Venue also includes a full version of Microsoft Office Home 2013. This isn't the much-maligned Windows RT, either. It's the full Windows 8.1 operating system.

You're probably going to want a mouse and keyboard to make navigating Windows more familiar, and on a tablet with a single micro-USB port, that means leaning on Bluetooth. We picked up a low-cost HP X4000b mouse on Amazon for $18, and Bluetooth-attached keyboards can be found for the same price (I snagged a new Microsoft Wedge mobile keyboard off of Craigslist for $30). As for wireless networking, the Venue includes a 2x2 antenna setup and 802.11n connectivity. Link speeds aren't the bottleneck I thought they might be.

To recap, I snagged the 32 GB Dell Venue 8 Pro for $200 from Micro Center. I spent another $50 on a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. Another $10 was invested into a leather case that doubles as a stand. All of those parts together give me the equivalent of an ultra-portable laptop, along with the peripherals needed for desktop gaming. But there are some compelling extras that I also wanted to test. If they're able to enhance my experience even more, I might be willing to spend a bit extra...

Display 46 Comments.
Top Comments
  • 11 Hide
    AMD Radeon , July 7, 2014 12:51 AM
    Great Review :) 

    Finally i see one noticeable advantage of Windows Tablet over Android
Other Comments
  • 8 Hide
    batman2142 , July 7, 2014 12:47 AM
    Same article with SP3 would be a worthy read since it gives a chance to see how their HD4400 vs HD5000 on the variants match up, and if possible a projection on what the newer chipset that wont be making into the current SP3 but might make into the refresh by holiday season?
  • 11 Hide
    AMD Radeon , July 7, 2014 12:51 AM
    Great Review :) 

    Finally i see one noticeable advantage of Windows Tablet over Android
  • -5 Hide
    blackmagnum , July 7, 2014 1:23 AM
    Burn your hands on the tablet while gaming, why don't you?
  • 4 Hide
    iPeekYou , July 7, 2014 2:03 AM
    "...turning it into a portable PC gaming console..."

    Does not compute
  • 3 Hide
    K-beam , July 7, 2014 2:43 AM
    Awesome article, Don, I have had the same thoughts recently. I think we would have appreciated some more info especially on:
    - Battery (maybe most important when you speak of portablility) - how long does it last with this model. I was eyeing the Asus Transformer Book T100TA, which they say has a quite respectable battery (but is also more expensive)
    - Does a PS3 controller (free, if you have a PS3) work with it?
    I would ideally have liked to see a mention of the Prince of Persia / Max Payne (1+2) / (Older) Tomb Raider / Splinter cell (1-4) and similar older third-person adventure games. In my opinion those work marvellously with a PS3 gamepad. Ah, I forgot - I wonder whether the touch would work directly with games from the Monkey Island series. Ah, another great genre for playing on a tablet, that was totally missed here - turn-based strategy games like the Heroes of Might and Magic series and Civilization (4). And also the grand-daddy of "modern" open-world FPSs - FarCry 1 :) 
    The biggest risk with those games is still compatibility with touch/Win 8.
    An expanded re-visit maybe when the new generation of chips come out from either from Intel or AMD?
  • 0 Hide
    CaptainTom , July 7, 2014 3:31 AM
    I mean isn't the controller choice obvious: PS4. It connects via bluetooth and has a touchpad so you can control the menus with a mouse.
  • 2 Hide
    back_by_demand , July 7, 2014 4:25 AM
    If you bought a Surface Pro 3 it probably wasn't to play games, but nice to know it is one of the best performers out there in the tablet range
  • 10 Hide
    ScrewySqrl , July 7, 2014 4:54 AM
    What I want to know is why has no one pushed an AMD APU into one of these windows tablets for gaming?
  • 1 Hide
    K-beam , July 7, 2014 5:22 AM
    I am also thinking SteamOS as dual boot...
  • 2 Hide
    K-beam , July 7, 2014 7:16 AM
    What's up with these multiple posts!!! Sorry for the splamming, it seems every time the page gets refreshed, the post is re-submitted!
  • 5 Hide
    gallovfc , July 7, 2014 7:26 AM
    Nice tests Don !! We are looking forward for more tests !! Maybe with a MS Surface Pro, or any AMD based tablet (with more GPU punch).
  • 2 Hide
    larsoncc , July 7, 2014 9:30 AM
    I enjoyed this article. I just spent some time configuring my own new tablet to run some games - a Dell Venue Pro 11 (with an "i5" dual core). It's about as powerful as you'd expect, which is to say it's not spectacular.

    Some games run very well on the tablet - Left4Dead 2 and Unreal Tournament 2004 run fantastically, as you might expect because they're a bit older, or based on older engines. Likewise, some other games that have lower system requirements run perfectly well (indie stuff, smaller games, games that were ported from PC to tablet). Examples include Castle Crashers, Geometry Wars, Plants Vs Zombies, Puzzle Quest, Pac Man DX, etc

    Some newer games that I've tried have framerate issues, but still at least play at lowest settings and resolutions. The games below, despite their framerate issues remain playable for the most part.

    Battlefield 4 (looks horrific because resolution scaling must be used, 20-35fps)

    Diablo 3 (35fps out of combat, 20-25 in combat, 17-19 in Torment II/III combat).

    Borderlands 2 (30+ out of combat, some dips in combat)

    Saints Row IV (45+ in places, 17-20 in others, it's odd, more geometry = bad)

    Tomb Raider (27-45fps or so, perfectly playable for the most part).

    In most cases, I am nerfing settings to a ridiculous degree.
  • 0 Hide
    larsoncc , July 7, 2014 11:12 AM
    I'd also add that cell phones have some Bluetooth controllers worth considering, like the MOGA series of controllers. Likewise, I hear that PS3/4 controllers are an option, but the concern with all of these is whether or not they have XInput (rather than using a program to bring compatibility with each game).
  • 1 Hide
    JOSHSKORN , July 7, 2014 11:16 AM
    For some reason, I'm estimating that by time the Surface Pro 6 is released, that one will be great for gaming. Integrated GPU will have caught up, sufficiently. You know how PC gaming is, it only gets so good to a certain point, because they have to make console ports, as well. Granted, the XBOX One/PS4's GPU is already outdated by the PC having discreet GPUs.
  • 0 Hide
    ninjustin , July 7, 2014 11:48 AM
    No matter the frame rate playing Dota on an 8 inch screen makes it unplayable. I have a 10 inch laptop and it's practically impossible on that.
  • 0 Hide
    Nintendo Maniac 64 , July 7, 2014 11:55 AM
    ...Nintendo's DSi XL? Did you happen to miss where it's been succeeded by the 3DS XL and the 2DS?

    (3DS XL and 2DS aren't really directly comparable due to the different form-factor - clam-shell vs tablet)
  • 0 Hide
    cleeve , July 7, 2014 12:09 PM
    Quote:
    ...Nintendo's DSi XL? Did you happen to miss where it's been succeeded by the 3DS XL and the 2DS?

    (3DS XL and 2DS aren't really directly comparable due to the different form-factor - clam-shell vs tablet)


    That was a bit of a brainfart in the intro, the actual article mentions the 3DS XL.

    Anyway, thanks for catching it. Fixed. :) 

    As far as being comparable, in the broad sense any portable gaming device is comparable. Portable console, phone, phablet, tablet... so I believe it's a relevant comparison in this context.
  • 0 Hide
    falchard , July 7, 2014 12:11 PM
    Quote:
    What I want to know is why has no one pushed an AMD APU into one of these windows tablets for gaming?

    MSI has. MSI W20. I think the issue has more to do with the clock speeds on the APUs in this power envelope, around 1 ghz. With this low a clock it may not have the necessary oomf. The recent APU has the power envelope and oomf, but we are only now starting to see it used in Tablets.
  • 3 Hide
    cleeve , July 7, 2014 12:12 PM
    Quote:
    Burn your hands on the tablet while gaming, why don't you?


    The Venue 8 Pro got warm during our play time, but I never found it uncomfortable.
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